Right time

There is charm in timing, a kind of magic that lets you know when “the right time” arrives and a sort of cloudiness that lets you know it is not quite “the right time”. The trick is to be able to read the signals with confidence and calm, to make the choices that make a difference, to trust intuition and to risk the outcome. There are first dates and marriage proposals, promotions and downsizing and they all involves that same attentiveness to what is happening at the moment. Being self-aware, conscious of stressors and uncertainities, flaws and foibles, is essential. Being able to be totally honest with self is even more important and more challenging.

We are the heroes of our stories, the survivors of the narratives that shape our lives. We live with illusions and delusions, and sometimes we allow that to override the simplicity of truth and the magnitude of real courage. We color our lives with desired design at the intersection of reality and recall. Sometimes, that aptitude enables us to bury the harder truths and pursue illusions about who and what we are, even live there without even a glance at the deeper truths. We dare not linger in the spaces where we can discover that.

Faith asks us for more than that. Faith dares us to recognize the complexity of human circumstance and the simplicity of human life. The Gospel today points that out. While the disciples discuss who is the greatest, they are ashamed to admit that to Jesus. And he provides a poignant reminder:

“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” 
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

They were dancing with the human hope for status and recognition; He was talking about embracing the ones who appear in our path with affection, respect and love. It means recognizing what is happening at that moment, the wonder and the weight of meeting destiny in the light of a child’s eyes. In subtle phrases, there is the idea that heroes belong to homes, to fragments of time and memory. But we, as human beings, belong entirely to one another with all the richness and brokenness of who we are and who we can be.

We have the capacity to recognize truth in the eyes of another, to find it flailing within ourselves, to share it with love and kindness. When the right time comes, and it is possible, honesty is born, the child of courage who has spoken truth. There is a purity in those moments that mirrors the innocent interactions of children who somehow sense who truly cares and shower affection in response. Home exists in those moments, those “right times” when truth and honesty open the door to love and respect. It is about so much more than being a hero: it is about being a person who is loved and loves without regret or reserve. It is about knowing when is the right time.

The Umbrella

Multiple systems and networks exist under the Catholic umbrella. There are local and global layers to the hierarchy and there are the religious communities of men and women as well. Although the realities maybe invisible to the untutored, the uniqueness of each is emblematic to those who live it out and often challenge pedominant stereotypes. Most importantly, those realities deepen the perception of what it means to be human. Maybe that is best glimpsed from the inside where individual integrity wrestles with institutional precepts and structures. An insitution that has lived through centuries and millenums has done so through persons in each generation; each one has carved meaning from what was and has been to find understanding of what is and move forward to what can be. For example, there are the contemplative houses of women.

From the medieval outset, the monasteries of women lead by Clare of Assisi represented an alternative to the patriarchal systems in place. Hundreds of years later, monasteries of contemplative women quietly pursue the life she designed. Medieval roots meet contemporary lifestyles with thoughtful consideration and a clear sense of who they are as believers, women, communities. For instance, the Poor Clares of the Bronx told a wonderful story that exposed both their understanding of communication and people and their awareness of others, their sense of what happens “behind the curtains” of the Church.

The sisters had few days outside the monastery, but attended annual gatherings of Franciscans like picnic celebrations. At one such event on Long Island, a bishop who had attended the papal enclave that elected Pope John Paul was present. He requested a ride back to New York City in their aging station wagon, and volunteered to answer their questions on the trip. The sisters went right to the core of things: “What was the politicking like at the enclave? How did the campaigning for candidates go?” His response was textbook. “Sisters, it is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit.” There was a moment of quiet, and then the burst of laughter that lasted from the Cross Island Parkway and over the Throgs Neck Bridge. Men, of course, are human. And to conceive of a world, a process, a sacred enclave, where there are no touches of humanity was impossible for women who live within the confines of a monastery, practice eight hours of prayer each day, rely on donations to survive finanacially and live a simplicity that environmentalists would love to master. Men are men, after all. Humans are human and created by God who accepts, forgives, encourages and sustains.

The Church provides guidelines and lifelines, but most importantly invites us to be the best of who we are as human. Paths are different and journeys diverse, but everyone has a place. On this 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, nothing could be more true. In the Gospel, Jesus asks the proverbial “Who do you say I am?” and he is identified by the Apostles as the Christ. It is equally important to pose questions like that for ourselves, and to have the courage to answer them. “Who am I? How do I know?” The reading from James is a reminder that we say we believe and what we do, faith and works, are revealing of who we are. The example of women who dedicate their lives to prayer and live out a vow of poverty prove this. Their vision of who we are as human is grasped with a courageous honesty that transcends stereotypes. It enables us to look realistically at the gifts of life and the truths of who we are. Embracing all that is accepting of human characteristics and features, behaviors and choices with understanding and empathy. The umbrella gets bigger with each generation.

Symbols Seen

Symbols carry layers of meaning that are peeled away as strength and insight grow. A crucifix hangs in our parish church, one that shows a corpus nailed to wooden beams. Crowned with thorns and wrapped in a gilded adorning the drape at the waist, the corpus and cross easily dominate the sanctuary. For years,it seemed to me a tender tribute to the Passion story; and then, it simply blended into the familiar and unseen. This week, it spoke of suffering as the cost of unconditional love and then intimates the certainty of God’s love for each of us. To love, then, means to suffer on some level. It implies simultaneously a freedom and a connection. That means sharing respect, empathy and understanding. Unconditional love is priceless; it cannot be bought or negotiated. It simply is. It exists outside the limits of fear and anxiety, spirals deeper than observations or judgement, and dares even the most skeptical to become accepting. It exists independently of actions or reciprocity; it is unearned, freely given, and faithful beyond fault. It is what nurtures human souls and comforts the lost, soothes the broken. It is the sense that in a world mad with circumstance and complexities, there is something, someone, who deeply cares. The cost of that kind of love is the the agony of the cross.

To believe that there is a God who is simply Other is to imagine the tenderness, the reality, of Jesus’ message. In the readings this week, there is the energetic strength of a God enabling the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the mute to speak. That is followed by Letter of James pointing to the need to reach out, to truly see one another as special. The Gospel shows Jesus performng those same miracles and transforming lives, offering hope to those who had none. Each of those persons gains and becomes more whole from a gift freely given, a healing without price or cost. Each of the readings testifies to the ways that God is present in the world. Each also testifies to a deeper truth: none of us is invisible to God. Seen as we are, we are loved and accepted by a God who trusts that we are more than our worst moments and better than our best moments. No matter what we do, that unconditional love is there, waiting.

The implications are profound: for instance, no person can be invisible, unseen or unnoticed. That sense of being unimportant, meaningless, unworthy or unwanted has no traction in this understanding. Every human being matters. Every action makes a difference. Every failure and every hope has a place, can be anchored in human lives without fear of desolation. Because beyond the interactions of flawed human beings, there is an outpouring of encouragement from the source of unconditional love. While that sounds so intangible, there are symbols everywhere waiting to reveal their layers, share their purposes, wanting to be noticed and understood.

Loss and Love

Loss is multi-faceted. Sometimes named “change” or “transition”, it is also both truth and opportunity. And it is most importantly a critical element of human experience. Every aspect of loss is a reminder of our competencies and capacities as human beings. That is mirrored in all the great literature of the world, in the stories told over firepits in backyards and in the revered books of the Bible. Each of those provides mirrors for what we know and windows to see what we have not yet noticed. Loss is both a mirror and a window when confronted in its reality and when normalized by conversation, by sharing. Silence about loss deepens and multiplies it, enables it to override choice and opportunity. Conversation about loss connects persons and stories and communities, proves that all of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done, and that each of us are far from idealized perfection.

Throughout history, God has been characterized anthropomorphically, understood as human. Authors like Karen Armstrong and Jack Miles have contended with the concept with insight and humor. God emerges through the Old Testament and matures in the New Testament. The full range of human emotions and actions are present: creativity and caring, anger and revenge, compassion and confidence, rescue and abandonment. Always, there is depth and breadth to complicated characters, settings and scenarios. From Moses and Marian to Judith and Holofernes, David and Bathsheba, Peter and Mary Magdalene, there are clear reflections of human hubris and humility, choices and challenges. There is continuity in the sense that there are divergent elements of human nature present in the stories, and there is consistency in both tragedy and triumph as part of human life. God clearly plays a role in personal lives, in relationships both complex and tender. There is Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Moses and the Promised Land, Jesus in the desert and Paul’s conversion. And somehow, the human understanding of God is shaped by the elements of cultures and time periods. God who is defined as “Other”, is confined to the structures of human intellect. But suppose that thinking finds new ground and interpretation in these times. Suppose that God, more than judge or arbiter, is actually the source and nurturer of love and goodness. Suppose God’s Hand is the gentle one, the kind one. Suppose God is love. How does that change things?

Some phrases like “God loves you” are simple and sometimes trite in usage. But if God is love, then everything from facing loss to celebrating births takes on new meaning. All other boundaries are transcended by that love. With God as a loving companion, loyal and trustworthy, it is humanly possible to do what seemed impossible. Accessing and accepting unadorned truths may not be easily digestible, but with the courage born of knowing love, it is possible. Abandoning delusions and illusions, making honest choices, is entirely possible with confidence in being loved and cared for. Knowing love and acceptance enables ordinary human beings to experience extraordinary moments, days, years and decades. Maybe that is what this week’s readings are really all about. After all, the second reading from James says:

All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. 
He willed to give us birth by the word of truth
that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

To love and be loved

This summer, the specter of death contrasted sharply with the vibrant greens of new life, and the interface of the two opened new spaces for understanding and growth. Questions were raised as well: why are we here? What are we doing? What is our purpose? Why do people hurt each other so much? What is going on? Humbly grasping for answers, or somewhat adequate responses or relevant conjecture, I realized that there is a stark simplicity to life and to purpose: to love and be loved. It was not an insight of my own; it came from an obituary, a testimony to a man whose highest objective was exactly that. It was written by his wife who gracefully blended his life story with the narrative of a truly blended family. It was simple and clear, and it summed up the reasons we are here with a gentle confidence that belongs to those who love and are loved.

Sometimes, in the resevoir of daily events, time trumps relationship and productivity trumps purpose. But there, in black and white, one phrase captured it all. Ironically, the Gospel points in the same direction, but takes it further: Jesus shows the need for grace to meet each moment. “No one can come to me unless the Father draw him”. Grace is what opens eyes to truth and enables honesty and generates choices. Grace is what helps us love and accept love, learn to love and live the letting go that is so much a part of love. But there is more to this trajectory of thought. Just as grace enables us, there is also the reality that each human being lives in a world of complexity and challenge. And so there are rituals, systems, traditions within the church that acknowledge our errors, speak to our failings and enable us to find new pathways.

As a graduate student, I was delighted with the concept of “erroneous conscience”. Then, I looked at it as an “easy out” for errors. From the vantage point of age, there seems so much more. Human beings grow and change everyday, learn more, develop persepctives and shift pathways and keep becoming more. I finally saw that the church is a harbinger for that truth and established customs and rituals to affirm and recognize those emerging persons who dare to change. There is an acceptance of the idea that mistakes are made, that adjustments are possible and becoming more than who we are is a lifelong journey. In other words, life is not “once and done”. It is much more about meeting the world and issues head on and finding the most sacred of truths to live by.

To love and be loved is the most sacred of all human activity, all human purpose. It illuminates the darkest hours and shapes dreams into possibilites. It is interactive, simple and clear. And it is the most demanding of all things because it asks for that truth and honesty, the respect, that make love in every sense come alive. He achieved that, and his wife celebrated it, and we have it to aspire to as we move forward.

Becoming Human

Relationships help us explore the vast resources, gifts, and the limits within each of us. Relationships bring to life the continuum of emotions, the stretch of intellect and the physical dimensions of who we are. It begins at birth with the bonds between parent and child, leans through childhood with extended family and then into puberty and adolescence with explosive growth. The whole process continues in adulthood, multiple times, revealing the essence of being over days and decades. Reality says the essence of who we are continually deepens with every day, every sunrise, every choice.

There are the extraordinary connections that somehow dare us to become more than who we are or who we thought we were. These are the relationships that reveal our capacity for awe and wonder, challenge assumptions and dump illusions and delusions. Raw truths become apparent and our capacity for compassion, love and empathy expand with grace and fortitude. Realistic and humbling perceptions of self are juxtaposed with the mirrored images from those relationships. Honesty with self and others develops a deeper hue and demands a new and genuine fidelity to those deepening truths and perceptions. There is an intellectual harbor for this lifelong exploration, and the articulation of each awareness becomes a precious exchange of the newly discovered insights. The beauty of who we are and who we can be is somehow more palatable and much more real. Actions and behaviors find new purpose and direction, and are founded on truths, not illusions, as relationships develop and deepen. Life-changing, each connection draws out more of who we are and what truths are at home within us. We emerge and re-emerge over time nurtured by friendships and partnerships, connections enabling us to become who we are meant to be. Every nuance of this lifelong journey demands more of us than we imagined possible and grants us the same: gifts and joys we could never have imagined.

In essence, we make one another human. We draw out the best in each other, and sometimes we solicit the worst. Either way, we demonstrate to one another who we are at that moment in every interaction. We impact one another whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. By existing, we are part of one another’s existence and constitute for one another what goodness looks like and what shapes hurts and fears take. There is this terrifyingly simple truth that we cannot know self without knowing others. And so, with the fresh breath of every sunrise, we continue to make one another more human by stirring and sharing the unknown capacities and the unsuspected gifts each of us has. Genuine gentleness and kindness open the doors to a world where truth and honesty can build love and respect, the kind that leads to sincere awe of the greatness that lives within created beings.

The simplicity and the power of the Magnificat in the Gospel for the celebration of the Assumption of Mary points to that sort of intimacy in relationship, that deep grasp and understanding of Other, and the humble sense of gratitude for the gift of connection.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
        my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
        for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
    From this day all generations will call me blessed:
        the Almighty has done great things for me
        and holy is his Name.
    He has mercy on those who fear him
        in every generation.
    He has shown the strength of his arm,
        and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
    He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
        and has lifted up the lowly.
    He has filled the hungry with good things,
        and the rich he has sent away empty.
    He has come to the help of his servant Israel
        for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
        the promise he made to our fathers,
        to Abraham and his children forever.

While structure and rituals have purpose and meaning within Catholicism, the core of it is all about relationships, definitley about the journey of being flawed and human and always about becoming more than we thought we could be.

Angels

He was a parish priest exiled to the edge of the Archdiocese, to a solitary ministry in a lowly village where the sparse population fluctuated only with the arrival of summer residents. Some said he was ghostly with that tuft of white on his crown, that pallid complexion and the black cassock worn to threadbare. He was elderly; time had twisted his fingers and stolen his gait, but his mind was sharp and his eyesight acute. It was as if he could see inside souls and he brooked no judgment in so doing. In short, he was humble man, honest and realistic about the work and the mission, caring and compassionate to the congregation. He knew what it was to be human, and he lived the suffering that meant. It also meant welcoming every single person with a jovial simplicity. After just one conversation, he captured names and faces, tones and nuances, details and auras. And it all would resurface later, sometimes years later, in a casual conversation at the market or within the confines of the confessional. The astonished listener invariably realized here was an extraordinary man in the most ordinary of circumstances. And when age finally forced his retirement, he remained in the rectory under the auspices of a younger and more energetic pastor. On Memorial Day that year, he requested permission from that pastor to march in the annual parade from the baseball field to the center of the town as he always had before. Permission was granted. He marched the whole way, and at the end, he collapsed. Heart attack. And so the community gathered together in his tiny church, in the pews he dusted, amid the candles he trimmed, and they wept together for the angel that had existed among them.

Angels find bearing in so many ways, impact lives with a Tinkerbell touch of joy, and provide some reassurance that even in the worst of times, there is good in the world. Invisible and indomitable, angels rescue the unsuspecting from the exisential dangers that life presents. It might be the anchor of a word or a warning. It might be the pause, the smile, the extra mile that makes a difference in someone’s life. it is the kind word, the gentle approach. Angels are reminders that no matter who we are or where we are, life is something special to be explored and treasured and people, individuals, are what really matters. Traditional definitions offer the explanation that angels are messengers of God, but the term is tied to people, too, of uncommon conduct or virtue. The second reading for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time points to that, to kindness and compassion, living in love. Angels do exactly that: in the first reading, Elijah is the beneficiary of an angel’s promptings. And in the Gospel, there is Jesus, the messenger, the guide, more than the angels.

Angels without halos and wings live all around us, prompt us to the next step, the new perspective, the possibilities for life. They are the unsung heroes who assure compassion, comfort and love. Theirs are the hearts that see beyond judgment, that perceive goodness in the worst of us and weaknesses in the best of us. Theirs are the humble hearts that perceive sincerity, remain steadfast in uncertainty and draw the best from the challenges to be handled in life. Angels are the friends, the acquaintances, the family and the strangers who cross our paths. They are quietly dedicated, and often quite invisible. But they are there, waking and urging and helping us become more than who we are as we struggle through the increments of time.

Remembering

On June 17, I lost my best friend. The cadence of his voice, the singularity of his texts, the attentiveness in the way he listened. The chuckle and the comments, the word smithing. He was, after all, a wordsmith (disguised as a carpenter) who was an avid reader and loved the weight and willingness of words, the want for clarity and the wiggle room of meaning. He was calm and gentle, incredibly respectful and consistent, shouldered all his own burdens and assumed full responsibility for actions. In some ways, his quiet made him hard to know; in others, it was intensely revealing of the man he was. He had a warm and tender sense of concern for others, all others, and he chose to help wherever he could. He possessed the courage to name his own insecurities and frame their sources, challenge their existence. He celebrated his friendships and harbored the strongest of feelings for his children. But just after a series of kind and reassuring texts, he was gone. His absence from my life has been a grief of unanticipated depth and breadth. Sleepless nights have blended with loss of appetite and floods of memories. I had always assumed those would be of the best variety since our conversations and time shared was so much a reflection of the home that exists between friends. Instead, so much of it is torturous, resting as it does with the finality of loss and the sense of “never again”. Still, his ideas, his thinking and words, even his gestures, come alive in unexpected moments, in unlikely places, and somehow bring a measure of sanity to the abyss of this grief.

Loss, bereavement, punctuates lives with a cruelty unparalleled, but it also humbles and reframes lives. What once seemed to matter pales in the face of such loss; what can and should matter somehow re-emerge with a deeper awareness and fuller conviction. The truth of who we are and who we can be is neither hidden nor elusive. Loss reminds us of the frailty of life, the shortness of it and too, the possibilities that still somehow are within grasp for the survivors.

In this Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time, the readings are a reminder of finding home within the mysteries of human existence. In the first reading, amid the anger and angst of a people crossing the desert, there is the sustenance of quail and manna. It is provided by a loving God in the story, a testimony to commitment and purpose. The second reading urges trust in the teachings of Jesus, to open to the new possibilities that change can bring. There is an emphasis on moving forward from the past, trying something new. The Gospel completes the cycle with the final lines,

“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”

All of these point to the richness of home in relationship. Within all the struggles that humans confront, with the weight of grief and loss, confusion and frustration, it is easy to forget the source of life, to fail to acknowledge that there is so much beyond self. Human lives are entangled in the mysteries of the Universe, the inexplicable gifts of connections and joy and the equally incomprehensible losses. Remembering gives life to what was; remembering gives birth to re-emergence, to becoming who we really are in this new world so marked by loss and change.

Loaves

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. But these are far from ordinary times. Suffering underscores even the triumphs of the spirit like the empty stadium seats surround the Olympic athletes. And there are the very simple needs to take care of everyday: physical, mental, emotional in a world chirping with change. Still there is an inherent beauty in the most simple aspects of life: the rich plopping of raindrops on windshields, listening as a choice of kindness, gentleness in interaction with self and others. The miracle of the loaves and fishes in today’s Gospel acknowledges both the challenge of suffering and then possibilities and the importance of re-emerging in each generation, every stage of life.

The latter is visible in connecting with the first reading. Ezekiel captures the story of the manna in the desert. The Israelites at a loss, and the manna appearing to sustain and fortify. It is from a gentle, compassionate God looking at a people struggling through the desert. And centuries later, there is the Gospel account of Jesus looking out at a crowd on a very different type of journey. Gathering to hear Him speak, they are tired and hungry. He sees what is real in them, the basic needs in a very different setting. Interestingly, He inquires first of the apostles about how to manage this moment. They are perplexed by the numbers of people, the practical costs of feeding a crowd. It is a child who comes to the fore, a child as the sign of Hope, of a new generation and possibility. Five loaves and fishes. Baskets to share. A miracle unanticipated but invested in the wealth of fragile humans who were unaware of what could happen, did happen. Into the desert of human need comes the generosity of creation…and so the baskets are filled with remnants of a meal savored and enjoyed. And once again a gentle and compassionate God tenderly holds people close and empowers a moment that is more than what is even imaginable for people. It is not grandiose in either instance; it is simply food, a necessary nurturing. But it speaks of the even more critical and essential human need: love. The truth of that is incredibly easy to miss but both stories echo the human need to be loved and then to love in turn and carry it all forward.

There is the not-so-very secret. As persons, we stand at the gathering place too. And just as Teresa of Avila spoke of being the Hands and Heart of Christ, there is an adjacent reality: we can choose to be less. We can inflict damage and pain and allow ourselves to hurt, humiliate and destroy others. Or we can choose the kindness and gentleness of a compassionate God. The harshness of life is undeniable; the journey seems impossibly challenging at so many points. In those moments of hunger for a release from the grief and challenges, there is opportunity to share manna, to know the taste of the loaves, to take the leap towards trust and put others in front of self and really share the journey.

Companions

The pen was about the size of a small playground. That’s because it was actually a play yard, and it was adjacent to a pre-school. Half a dozen sheep lounged there, soft and cuddly white wool, rich dark eyes and a quiet malaise near melancholy as they chomped on the grass. They were temporary residents, and I had a perch on the fence to observe their goings on and occasionally refill the water trough. I was simply watching their world, not part of it, and wondering a thousand things about how the natural and human worlds are intertwined, how connections are formed between and among us, and how choices are made from the most mundane (what to eat and when) to the most complicated (what to do with the time and the lives we have). Into that reverie, unfolding a story, were the sheep who simply seemed to exist, to satisfy their needs and to get along with one another in a way that was neither competitive nor denying of each other. Enter the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. It is all about the Good Shepherd. But this time, when I looked more closely, something else stood out. In this liminal space of life, this is really all about connections and perceptions, trust and confidence in one another, a sense of belonging, and the hope that enables survival in a world and life that offers both joys and suffering.

Each reading offers a different dimension of that theme. The first displays the presence of a gentle caring God calling us to be conscious of one another, aware of Him. The second gives the cozy comfort of Psalm 23, a God who truly loves and a people who are fully confident in His love and protection throughout the challenges of life. There is a tenor to the lines that confides the emotional roller coaster that life can be, the traumas that life can present. And there is the steadiness of a tone of survival, even of becoming, as the challenges are navigated one by one.

He guides me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
    I fear no evil; for you are at my side
with your rod and your staff that give me courage….

Only goodness and kindness follow me
    all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
    for years to come.  

The second reading is a reassurance of all that, that Jesus himself is the live wire connection among us. Finally, there is the Gospel that clearly defines Jesus’ mission and relationship to people: he is the caretaker, the teacher, the empathetic and compassionate one. He mentors, connects, challenges and explores with the sheep. There is a kindness undergirding it all, the sense that each of us is more than our flaws, more than our grief and better than our limitations.

Remembering those moments perched on the fence above the pen, the questions that surfaced and the ease with which the sheep adjusted to the play yard, reminds me that life is both mysterious and memorable, but having that trust in and companionship of a Shepherd makes all the difference.